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Limited by Design

A vote against "over-featurization" and for intentionally limited product design.

Given the enormous range of capabilities that most modern tech devices now have, it’s understandable that expectations for new devices continue to grow. It seems as though each new gadget should have all the features and functionality of its predecessors, and a few more unique ones of its own (oh, and the more of these new features, the better). You can place and receive phone calls, read and respond to instant messages, listen to music, view photos, create and edit documents, and do practically anything you can think of on almost any tech device you now own.

While that may have made sense in an era when people only owned and used a few devices, the argument starts to fall apart in a multi-device-per-person age. In fact, you could even make the argument that too many multi-function devices is actually counterproductive. Yes, there’s something to be said for having the flexibility to do virtually any activity on any device, but it can start to get confusing and out of hand pretty quickly, particularly if everything doesn’t get immediately and consistently synced across all your devices and services.

Which device did I start that on? Where’s the thread I was reading? How come that photo I took yesterday isn’t on this device? Etc. Yet that’s where most of us find ourselves today.

The answer to many of these dilemmas is straightforward, if a bit counterintuitive to current thinking: Simplify. Or, to put it another way, limit the functionality, intentionally.

Sounds easy, right? Well, not necessarily. There are definitely risks in putting out products that are limited by design. For one, product reviewers and other influencers often flaunt their knowledge of a given category by comparing a new device’s features and functions to all of what the reviewer sees as the device’s competitors. Based on my earlier comments, most of those are likely to be more full-featured. In that comparative light, an intentionally limited product could be seen, and written about, as a failure.

Another key challenge is figuring out exactly what set of functions to include and which to exclude. In fact, this is really where the magic is, because it determines how a device can be positioned and understood by potential customers. Select the wrong features and you end up with a device that just doesn’t live up to people’s expectations. But pick the right ones and you could, at least theoretically, start to see the device in a whole new, category-defying light.

I bring this topic up now because we’re starting to see two important new trends that could benefit from an intentionally limited way of thinking. First, the move toward specialization in certain key categories, like tablets and smartphones. While most people have been looking for general-purpose examples of these devices, I believe that as these categories mature and consumers become accustomed to certain kinds of devices, they’re going to want to branch off and find versions that are better suited to their specific needs. For example, tablets optimized for creative artists or gamers, smartphones incorporating extensive photographic capabilities, smartphones specifically designed for use by older consumers, etc. Arguably, we’ve started to see some of these kinds of specialized devices appear already, but I think we’re going to see a lot more.

Second, it’s not difficult to imagine the wearables category, as a whole, potentially falling into the trap of “over-featurization” when they really should be limited by design. The desire to stuff an enormous amount of capabilities into a small device is likely to be a tempting one for many wearable product designers. But honestly, do I need to be able view my PowerPoint slides on my wrist? More realistically, do I really think that delivering all the notifications I normally get on a smartphone onto the tiny screen of a smartwatch makes sense? Seems to me that it’s going to be a lot more distracting and time-consuming going through them all one at a time, than a single glance at a bigger smartphone screen would be (which, by the way, can quickly show me five or even 10 notifications at once).

A few of the recently announced wearables, including the Intel-driven Mica device from Opening Ceremony and Hewlett-Packard’s surprising Michael Bastian-designed MB Chronowing, arguably fit into the “limited by design” vision I’ve been describing. While I haven’t been able to try either one (so I can’t comment on how well they actually work), I have noticed that a fair amount of the press coverage they’ve received places their intentional limitations in a negative light. Now, it might be that they didn’t pick the right set of features (as I mentioned above) to truly make them stand out, but I do fear that devices like these aren’t going to be given much of a chance if people can’t get past their intentional limitations.

It’s a well-known design adage that less is often more, but when it comes to tech-focused devices, it’s the opposite that has typically been perceived as true. Let’s hope that as new types of specialized devices come to market, people keep an open mind and view them through a lens that can potentially see beauty through their limitations.

Bob O’Donnell is the founder and chief analyst at Technalysis Research LLC, a technology market research and consulting firm. He also writes a weekly column and participates in a weekly podcast at Reach him @bobodtech.

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